Everyone experiences occasional digestive symptoms such as upset stomach, gas, heartburn, nausea, constipation or diarrhea.
However, when these symptoms occur frequently, they can cause major disruptions to your life.
Fortunately, diet and lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on your gut health.
Here are 12 evidence-based ways to improve your digestion naturally.
The typical Western diet — high in refined carbs, saturated fat and food additives — has been linked to an increased risk of developing digestive disorders (1).
Food additives, including glucose, salt, and other chemicals, have been suggested to contribute to increased gut inflammation, leading to a condition called leaky gut (2).
Trans fats are found in many processed foods. They’re well-known for their negative effects on heart health but have also been associated with an increased risk of developing ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease (3).
What’s more, processed foods like low-calorie drinks and ice creams often contain artificial sweeteners, which may cause digestive problems.
One study found that eating 50 grams of the artificial sweetener xylitol led to bloating and diarrhea in 70% of people, while 75 grams of the sweetener erythritol caused the same symptoms in 60% of people (4).
Gut bacteria imbalances have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and irritable bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (7).
Fortunately, scientific evidence suggests that diets high in nutrients protect against digestive diseases (8).
Therefore, eating a diet based on whole foods and limiting the intake of processed foods may be best for optimal digestion.
Diets high in processed foods have been linked to a higher risk of digestive disorders. Eating a diet low in food additives, trans fats and artificial sweeteners may improve your digestion and protect against digestive diseases.
It’s common knowledge that fiber is beneficial for good digestion.
Soluble fiber absorbs water and helps add bulk to your stool. Insoluble fiber acts like a giant toothbrush, helping your digestive tract keep everything moving along (9).
Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, legumes, nuts and seeds, while vegetables, whole grains and wheat bran are good sources of insoluble fiber.
A high-fiber diet has been linked to a reduced risk of digestive conditions, including ulcers, reflux, hemorrhoids, diverticulitis and IBS (10).
Prebiotics are found in many fruits, vegetables and grains.
A high-fiber diet promotes regular bowel movements and may protect against many digestive disorders. Three common types of fiber are soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as prebiotics.
Good digestion may require eating enough fat. Fat helps you feel satisfied after a meal and is often needed for proper nutrient absorption.
If you experience frequent constipation, adding more fat to your diet may help you get some relief.
Fat keeps food moving smoothly through your digestive system. What’s more, omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, which may prevent inflammatory bowel diseases.
Experts recommend drinking 50–66 ounces (1.5–2 liters) of non-caffeinated fluids per day to prevent constipation. However, you may need more if you live in a warm climate or exercise strenuously (17).
In addition to water, you can also meet your fluid intake with herbal teas and other non-caffeinated beverages such as seltzer water.
On the other hand, be careful not to drink too much with meals, as this can dilute your stomach’s natural acids. Taking small sips with meals is fine, but avoid downing a large amount of water right before a meal.
Another way to help meet your fluid intake needs is to include fruits and vegetables that are high in water, such as cucumber, zucchini, celery, tomatoes, melons, strawberries, grapefruit and peaches (18, 19).
Insufficient fluid intake is a common cause of constipation. Increase your water intake by drinking non-caffeinated beverages and eating fruits and vegetables that have a high water content.
Stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system.
Stress hormones directly affect your digestion. When your body is in fight-or-flight mode, it thinks you don’t have time to rest and digest. During periods of stress, blood and energy are diverted away from your digestive system.
Other studies have found that cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture and yoga have improved digestive symptoms (27).
Therefore, incorporating stress management techniques, such as deep belly breathing, meditation or yoga, may improve not only your mindset but also your digestion.
It’s easy to eat too much too quickly if you’re not paying attention, which can lead to bloating, gas and indigestion.
Studies have shown that mindfulness may reduce digestive symptoms in people with ulcerative colitis and IBS (29).
To eat mindfully:
- Eat slowly.
- Focus on your food by turning off your TV and putting away your phone.
- Notice how your food looks on your plate and how it smells.
- Select each bite of food consciously.
- Pay attention to the texture, temperature and taste of your food.
Eating slowly and mindfully and paying attention to every aspect of your food, such as texture, temperature and taste, may help prevent common digestive issues such as indigestion, bloating and gas.
Digestion starts in your mouth. Your teeth break down the food into smaller pieces so that the enzymes in your digestive tract are better able to break it down.
Poor chewing has been linked to decreased nutrient absorption (30).
When you chew your food thoroughly, your stomach has to do less work to turn the solid food into the liquid mixture that enters your small intestine.
Chewing produces saliva, and the longer you chew, the more saliva is made. Saliva helps start the digestive process in your mouth by breaking down some of the carbs and fats in your meal.
In your stomach, saliva acts as a fluid, which is mixed with the solid food so that it smoothly passes into your intestines.
Chewing your food thoroughly ensures that you have plenty of saliva for digestion. This may help prevent symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn.
What’s more, the act of chewing has even been shown to reduce stress, which may also improve digestion (31).
Chewing food thoroughly breaks it down so that it can be digested more easily. The act also produces saliva, which is needed for proper mixing of food in your stomach.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your digestion.
Exercise and gravity help food travel through your digestive system. Therefore, taking a walk after a meal may assist your body in moving things along.
Regular exercise may be beneficial for your digestion as well.
One study in healthy people showed that moderate exercise, such as cycling and jogging, increased gut transit time by nearly 30% (32).
In another study in people with chronic constipation, a daily exercise regimen including 30 minutes of walking significantly improved symptoms (33).
Exercise may improve your digestion and reduce symptoms of constipation. It can also help reduce inflammation, which may be beneficial in preventing inflammatory bowel conditions.
Stomach acid is necessary for proper digestion. Without enough acid, you may experience symptoms of nausea, acid reflux, heartburn or indigestion.
Low stomach acid levels can be caused by the overuse of over-the-counter or prescription acid-reducing medications (36).
Other causes may be stress, eating too quickly, age and a diet high in processed foods.
Apple cider vinegar is one simple way to increase your stomach acid. However, drinking the vinegar straight may be too harsh on your digestive tract, so it’s best to dilute 1–2 teaspoons (5–10 ml) in a small glass of water and drink it immediately before a meal.
Alternatively, one study showed that chewing a gum containing apple cider vinegar reduced symptoms of heartburn after a meal (37).
Low stomach acid may cause digestive symptoms such as nausea, heartburn, indigestion and acid reflux. Drinking 1–2 teaspoons (5–10 ml) of raw apple cider vinegar diluted in a glass of water before meals may help increase your stomach acid.
When you’re not paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues, it’s easy to overeat and experience gas, bloating and indigestion.
It’s a commonly held belief that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to realize that your stomach is full.
While there’s not a lot of hard science to back up this claim, it does take time for hormones released by your stomach in response to food to reach your brain (38).
Therefore, taking the time to eat slowly and pay attention to how full you’re getting is one way to prevent common digestive problems.
Additionally, emotional eating negatively impacts your digestion. In one study, people who ate when they were anxious experienced higher levels of indigestion and bloating (39).
Taking the time to relax before a meal may improve your digestive symptoms.
Not paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues and eating when you’re emotional or anxious can negatively impact digestion. Taking time to relax and pay attention to your body’s cues may help reduce digestive symptoms after a meal.
You know that bad habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and eating late at night aren’t great for your overall health.
And, in fact, they may also be responsible for some common digestive issues.
Smoking nearly doubles the risk of developing acid reflux (40).
Furthermore, studies have shown that quitting smoking improves these symptoms (41).
If you have digestive issues and smoke cigarettes, keep in mind that quitting may be beneficial.
Alcohol can increase acid production in your stomach and may lead to heartburn, acid reflux and stomach ulcers.
Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract (45).
Alcohol has also been associated with inflammatory bowel diseases, leaky gut and harmful changes in gut bacteria (46).
Reducing your consumption of alcohol may help your digestion.
Eating late at night and then lying down to sleep can lead to heartburn and indigestion.
Your body needs time to digest, and gravity helps keep the food you eat moving in the right direction.
Additionally, when you lie down, the contents of your stomach may rise up and cause heartburn. Lying down after eating is strongly associated with an increase in reflux symptoms (47).
If you experience digestive issues at bedtime, try waiting three to four hours after eating before going to bed, to give the food time to move from your stomach to your small intestine.
Bad habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and eating late at night can cause digestive issues. To improve digestion, try to avoid these damaging habits.
Certain nutrients may help support your digestive tract.
Probiotics are beneficial strains of bacteria that support digestion by increasing the number of healthy bacteria in your gut.
These healthy bacteria assist in digestion by breaking down indigestible fibers that can otherwise cause gas and bloating.
Studies have shown that probiotics may improve symptoms of bloating, gas and pain in people with IBS (48).
Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso, as well as yogurts that have live and active cultures.
They’re also available in capsule form. A good general probiotic supplement will contain a mix of strains including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
You can increase your glutamine levels by eating foods such as turkey, soybeans, eggs and almonds (52).
Glutamine can also be taken in supplement form, but talk to your healthcare practitioner first to ensure that it’s an appropriate treatment strategy for you.
Zinc is a mineral that is critical for a healthy gut, and a deficiency can lead to various gastrointestinal disorders (53).
Supplementing with zinc has been shown to be beneficial in treating diarrhea, colitis, leaky gut and other digestive issues (53).
The recommended daily intake (RDI) for zinc is 8 mg for women and 11 mg for men.
Certain nutrients are necessary for a healthy digestive tract. Ensuring that your body gets enough probiotics, glutamine and zinc may improve your digestion.
Simple diet and lifestyle changes may help improve your digestion if you experience occasional, frequent or chronic digestive symptoms.
Eating a whole-foods diet high in fiber, healthy fat and nutrients is the first step toward good digestion.
Practices such as mindful eating, stress reduction and exercise can also be beneficial.
Finally, ditching bad habits that may affect your digestion—such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and late-night eating—may help relieve symptoms as well.
Melissa Groves is a registered dietician and owner of Avocado Grove Nutrition, LLC. A full-service integrative nutrition counseling practice located on the NH seacoast that offers virtual and in-person services. Specialties include women’s health and hormones (fertility, PCOS), food allergies and intolerance, and mindful/intuitive eating. This article was originally published on Healthline.